National School Lunch Reform
Do you want to be part of the movement to improve school meals? Sign up today to join a growing community of health care professionals, parents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens who want more plant-based options in school meals and less processed meat and dairy products.
School meals play a central role in ensuring our country’s youth receive the nutrition they need to grow and thrive. Over 31 million children receive meals each day through the National School Lunch Program and over 12 million participate in the National School Breakfast Program.
One in three children is overweight or obese, will have type 2 diabetes, and is already at increased risk of heart disease. Schools that prioritize nutrition are known to improve their students' well-being, help them thrive academically, and instill healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, processed meat and dairy products are the primary source of fat in children’s diets and are major sources of calories, sodium, and cholesterol. 1 They have been linked to some cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Researchers have found that diets high in animal protein contribute to a fourfold increase in the chance of dying from cancer or diabetes. 2 The National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the President’s Cancer Panel, and the Harvard School of Public Health have warned of the strong link between processed meat and cancer, while the American Institute of Cancer Research has stated that no amount of processed meat is safe to eat. 3
The Physicians Committee encourages schools to offer more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains in children’s diets—foods that are inadequately consumed and linked to improved health outcomes—and avoid processed meat and dairy products that are over-consumed and linked to poorer health outcomes.
The Physicians Committee works with school districts across the country by offering plant-based recipes, resources, and marketing materials. Since 2004, the Physicians Committee has recognized food service professionals who do an exceptional job of improving the healthfulness of school lunches through its Golden Carrot Awards. We advocate for changes in the school lunch program in the following areas:
Offer a daily plant-based entrée as an option for all children.
Including a daily plant-based entrée such as a veggie burger, bean burrito, or fresh garden salad from the salad bar not only addresses inadequate consumption of healthful plant-based foods and helps form healthier eating habits, but can also lower children’s fat, calorie, sodium, and cholesterol intake by reducing consumption of processed meat and dairy products such as cheesy pizza, sausages and bacon, and fried chicken nuggets. It is an easy way for schools to meet the new nutrition standards based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines.
Offer nondairy milk as an option for all children.
Schools must offer nondairy beverages as an option to children. As many as one-third of American children are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy milk, and many more parents are choosing to have their children drink nondairy milks. Soy milk is the only plant-based milk deemed "nutritionally equivalent" to dairy milk in order for reimbursement. In fact, soy milk is superior by providing key amounts of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein without any of the health risks posed by dairy milk. Despite soy milk being reimbursable, students must have permission from a guardian or doctor and there is no guarantee the school will provide soy milk due to cost.
Improve USDA Foods
Improve USDA Foods (commodity foods) to provide healthful foods to children by leveraging USDA’s purchasing power and direct purchases. USDA purchases should facilitate the consumption of healthful foods that are lacking in children’s diets—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
Increase nutrition education for students to a minimum of 50 hours per academic year
Simply offering plant-based options in the school lunch program is not enough to get kids to consume them. While schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must have wellness policies that include nutrition promotion and education, there are no specific requirements regarding the amount of time or type of classes that children must spend or take in nutrition education. Some schools include general information about nutrition in their health education classes, and more than 60 percent provide nutrition and dietary behaviors as a topic for professional development for health instructors, but there are no specific guidelines. The mean number of hours spent on nutrition education in the first four years of school is only 13 hours per year, while a minimum of 50 hours per year is thought to be necessary to influence behavior.
Increase resources for kitchen equipment and infrastructure
Proper kitchen equipment and infrastructure are necessary to prepare and serve healthful meals such as plant-based entrées and other plant-based options. The main equipment needs for plant-based food preparation are inexpensive: utility carts, serving utensils, and knife sets with cutting boards. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 88 percent of school districts need at least one piece of kitchen equipment, and 55 percent need kitchen infrastructure changes. The most common equipment inadequacy noted by school food authorities was equipment needed to provide more fruits and vegetable items on daily menus and to offer a greater variety of fruits and vegetables. Most schools that do not have adequate equipment employ some type of workaround, such as manually chopping or slicing fruits and vegetables, storing fruits and vegetables off site and transporting them daily, and keeping fruits and vegetables in temporary storage containers.
Congress must increase funding for the DOD Fresh to improve program effectiveness and to increase the distribution of perishable and local produce such as fresh fruits and vegetables and single-serve nutritionally equivalent soy milks and soy yogurt.
DOD Fresh’s mandatory base appropriation of $50 million per year is not sufficient to meet the demand from participating schools given the remarkable growth from eight states to 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.
1 United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010,” n.d., http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/PolicyDoc.pdf.
2 Van Nielen M, Feskens EJM, Mensink M, et al. Dietary protein intake and incidence of type 2 diabetes in Europe: the EPIC-INTERACT case-cohort study. Diabetes Care. Published ahead of print April 10, 2014.
3 American Institute for Cancer Research, “The Facts about Red Meat & Processed Meat,” n.d. preventcancer.aicr.org/files/fact-sheets/Red-Meat_Flat_FINAL.pdf.